Timely Content Production that Gets Results: Saving the Briarlake Forest
Timely Content Production that Gets Results: Saving the Briarlake Forest
WordCamp Jacksonville 2017
This is a case study of how a WordPress site helped save a 21-acre forest inside the perimeter
in Atlanta from development in 2015. The site provided information to citizens in the 12
neighborhoods surrounding the forest, to DeKalb County officials, and to other interested
parties in an attempted rezoning process.
At the Amberwood Neighborhood Association Board meeting on August 17, 2014,
a developer and his partner presented a proposal to create a residential development
of cluster homes on the land where there was a 21-acre forest that has been there
since before the area was settled by white people in the 1830s.
To spread the word about a Neighborhood Education meeting planned for the
Saturday after Labor Day, I made an interactive poster for the Labor Day picnic at
the local swimming pool. The poster asked people to vote for their favorite Robin
Hood (Russell Crowe? Kevin Costner? Cary Elwes?). It drew them to the table where
we had placed flyers announcing the meeting.
I also made an enlarged (11 x 17) and colorized topographic map based on the
(8 ½ x 11) pdf file of the proposed development plan that included the topography
lines as well as marking the location of all the specimen (30 inches or more in
diameter) trees on the property. This map showed only the topography and the
trees, without the proposed lots. This map was posted at the local Swim/Tennis
Club Labor Day picnic as well. Emails and flyers were distributed in the neighborhoods
surrounding the forest inviting them to the Neighborhood Education meeting
on Saturday, Sept. 6.
50 people showed up for the Neighborhood Education Meeting. The County
Commissioner for our neighborhood called us and said he would like to speak
about the proposed development. At the meeting I videorecorded his speech
to the neighborhood. Many people asked questions. People were encouraged
to attend the developer’s required meeting at the library on September 8.
Eight people volunteered to help form an organization to respond to this situation.
50 people attended the Neighborhood Education Meeting. This was the result of
posters, flyers, and emails and phone calls to neighborhood association groups.
The developer spoke about his proposal to rezone the property for cluster homes
at the local public library two days later. The Library could barely hold all the people
who showed up for this meeting.
I called my neighbor Catherine Downey, owner of CatMedia, who had
attended the Neighborhood Education Meeting. She donated web hosting
for our new organization.
A few days later I posted the video of Commissioner’s speech on YouTube and
posted a link to it on Nextdoor.
By October 1, the board of the new organization had met several times
and had come up with the name of the organization (Briarlake Community
Forest Alliance) and the tag line, “Protecting our Quality of Life.” Here is the
first draft of a logo design. The Latin inscription means “Protecting our quality
of life.” I used a free heraldry site to make this design.
On October 1 the website goes live. Briarlake Community Forest Alliance:
Protecting our quality of life. The Forest and Its Future. This is the original
home page reconstructed.
There was originally an Events Calendar Events List widget in the right sidebar
showing upcoming events. The Town Hall meeting scheduled for October 6 was
announced in the original events list. On the current iteration of the website there
are currently no upcoming events, so this widget does not appear.
All within the first week of October the pages that appeared were: The Forest and
its Future (original home page), Urban Forestry, and Zoning. This page on Urban
Forestry was important to show the values our organization upheld. This video
presents the value of forests in a beautiful way. Other pages included an Important
Events page and a page with the contact information for the County Commissioners.
Design elements included a background image that shows what it looks like to look
up in the forest and a header image showing randomized views of the canopy.
This page on Zoning was important for showing competency in the legal aspects
of the situation. The tone is unemotional and explains the rationale for zoning,
the different categories, and the risks and benefits of each in the current proposal
before planning officials.
By October 5, the number of people on the email list was 360. People were
forwarding the emails to continue getting the word out about public meetings.
The Briarlake Community Forest Alliance, Inc. began with some money collected
from the original eight board members plus a few other people. This chart shows
how the amount it raised doubled, then quadrupled within a month and continued
to grow through mid-February. The money collected by BCFA was used mostly to
pay an attorney with expertise in land use and zoning issues.
At the Town Hall Meeting held in a local church
on October 6, the Briarlake Community Forest
Alliance presented a PowerPoint explaining the
situation in detail and introducing the board
and senior advisors of the organization. I did
not post the slideshow to the website. The
board was interested in sharing this
information and analysis with the community
of people attending the meeting but not
necessarily with the same level of detail with
Two hundred people attended the Town Hall meeting on October 6.
Signatures were collected on a petition and BCFA asked people for
financial support. Many people wrote checks that evening, and flyers
with information about the upcoming Community Council were distributed
along with cards listing the address where people could mail checks
to the organization.
So, at the beginning of October, here is the situation for BCFA. The developer
has been working on this proposal for probably about a year, BCFA for the past
7 weeks. The developer is a professional, working with other professional developers
in an organization specifically for that purpose. They have already formed a cohesive
unit. BCFA is a collection of people from various professions – but we had some great
talent including a commercial real estate finance professional, a banker, medical
doctors, an attorney and others. This particular developer had been in business
for 20 years – with lots of experience of all sorts of processes. BCFA had been in
business for 2 weeks. Finally, the developer had access to corporate level resources,
while BCFA (a Georgia non-profit corporation) relied solely on individual donations.
WordPress helped make up for these huge differences in likelihood of winning.
Because of the freedom to design pages and posts using themes, it was easy to
give the website a professional look and feel. This cannot be done so easily with
a Facebook page. The 2012 theme allows designers to create a background –
in this case I used a photograph of the canopy viewed as though one were actually
in the forest looking up. What one views on the screen is carefully designed to
allow easy navigation and to eliminate distractions so that longer form material
can be viewed and understood. A small number of carefully chosen widgets
made it easy for users to know immediately when the next event was scheduled.
Clicking this slide will link to the original homepage of the website on Internet
This page accomplished several things: it shows that BCFA knows
the history of the area and has connections to people who have lived here for
a long time, it shows that it has representation from a lot of neighborhoods,
it shows that the group knows what is really on the land, that it knows about
the ecosystem services provided by old-growth forests, that it has found out
about the economic value of those ecosystem services and that they are on
their way to formal recognition by governments, and that the group understands
that hydrology is a key factor to consider in the planning process. BCFA was
already looking at this situation from an engineering perspective, because that
is a major part of how planners are obligated to approach these decisions.
As a new organization, BCFA needed to demonstrate both to county officials
and to the discerning public that the organization understands the complexities
of real estate transactions, that there is a large community sharing the concerns
of BCFA, that BCFA can write about and discuss planning issues in the language
of planning professionals, that it has a sense of appropriateness and that it can
defend deeper values. The Town Hall Meeting was a place where the state of the
transaction was discussed and the board members were introduced. This took
care of numbers 1 and 6, and many things about the website address numbers
2, 3 and 4. The original home page mentions the nine neighborhoods represented
in the organization, the zoning page especially was written to establish that BCFA
was knowledgeable enough about planning to speak the language, and the
overall tone of the writing, offering information that is meant to be helpful in
the process, shows a sense of appropriateness.
The flyer distributed at the Town Hall meeting on October 6 shows the final version
of the shield logo that appears on all print materials from BCFA. The heraldic
tradition has a specific visual language that was used to formulate this design.
The address of the website is on the flyer that was handed out to 200 people
attending the meeting.
The very next day this comment was in the “To Be Moderated” area of the
WordPress dashboard, basically saying that BCFA would be sued by the property
owner. I did not publish this comment, but it was certainly an indication of where
some people thought BCFA stood. This is why it was extremely important that
BCFA hired an attorney with expertise in zoning and land use – the advice
provided by the attorney enabled the organization to avoid many pitfalls that
citizen groups often experience in these processes.
BCFA had a web communications team consisting of Ernie Eichenbaum,
who wrote the emails and eventually used MailChimp, and myself creating
the content and design for the website.
By mid-October (two weeks after the website launch), the cumulative effect
of the Town Hall meeting, the new website and the growing email list was that
BCFA had doubled the amount of money it started with.
There was a standing-room only crowd at the Community Council meeting on
October 14. People wore green shirts, as they had been instructed on the website
and in emails to do, and stickers of the BCFA shield were handed out for people
to wear. The community council voted to recommend a full-cycle deferral,
because it was evident to them that the community had not been adequately
informed by the developer. More time was needed for the community to
understand the proposal. A video of the vote was posted to the website.
An email update to the community explained the results of the Community Council
meeting. It also explained the need for legal counsel and asked for donations.
It referred people to the website for more information.
More pages have been added to the website by the end of October.
A page about local history written by a woman who grew up in the area in
the 1930s reinforced the idea that BCFA had done its homework, a page
explaining what the organization was about and listing board members,
and a page informing people where they could send donations, were all
added at this time. Yard signs advertising the website were given first to
donors, so that people in the neighborhoods could learn more about what
BCFA was doing. A brief article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about
local news included a reference to the website. The article called attention
to the group’s efforts leading up to the Planning Commission hearing
scheduled for November 6.
This is what the yard sign looks like. For newer
media such as yard signs and eventually video
ribbons, an updated version of the shield
shows a more modern-looking tree and a
silhouette of a hawk in flight. This updated
version was designed by BCFA board member
John Williams. The signs start appearing all
throughout the various neighborhoods near
By November 1, after the results of the Community Council meeting and with
more publicity through signs and “old media” coverage as well as new pages
on the website, BCFA had quadrupled the amount of money it started with.
This is perhaps THE MOST IMPORTANT post on the website. Clicking this photo
will open the post on the website in Internet Explorer
This post establishes BCFA as a research organization and sets the course
of future decisions by the county with regard to this property. There is a
hyperlink to a written analysis including a hydrology study by the U.S. Forest
Service. Because the written analysis is fairly dense material, it is hyperlinked
instead of shown in a post. If people want to read it, they can click on the link
and read it. This analysis was presented to the Planning Commission on the day
of the hearing, but well in advance of the Board of Commissioners meeting
where the decision would actually be made. The analysis shows how the
proposed development does not fit with the County’s Comprehensive Plan,
raises EPA compliance issues regarding stormwater runoff, and asserts that
the community is capable of creating and implementing better plans. The
argument presented by one of the speakers that the estimated increase in
stormwater runoff posed a public safety danger ultimately was adopted by
the Planning Commission in February as the reason for denying the proposed
development. The video coverage of the hearing and the votes allowed site
visitors to see for themselves the level of community action on this issue.
Finally, this post provided a sample letter people could use to write to their
county commissioners. This post appeared a few days after the hearing because
the BCFA board felt it needed time to evaluate the result of a vote for full cycle deferral.
There were many legal questions that needed to be answered, and once they were
answered, the post was published.
The Board of Commissioners met on November 18. At this meeting, the developer
withdrew his proposal to develop lots for cluster homes. This was a surprising turn
of events. BCFA learned on November 19 that the videos made by the county on the
county website do not have audio. No one in the community can review the videos
produced by the county to hear what happened. So early in the morning on November 20,
I posted the videos I had recorded. This showed the community that BCFA would serve
the community where the county could not.
The next few slides show how I used Twitter. On November 7 I established a Twitter
account for BCFA placed a Twitter feed widget on site. I used Twitter mostly to
communicate with reporters and other environmental organizations. Twitter provides
an instantaneous way to get news out that automatically appears on website as well.
It is also a great way to publish inspirational quotes such as this one by John Muir.
Here I used Twitter to add a photo of otters swimming in the lake next to a post
of the memorandum presented to the Board of Commissioners. At the Planning
Commission hearing a week earlier, one of the planning commissioners mentioned
seeing a photo of otters in the lake. The Twitter post shows BCFA is listening and
adds a touch of levity to the photos of flooding in the main body of the page.
Twitter allowed BCFA to publish the very surprising result of the Board of
Commissioners meeting immediately on the website. After the meeting,
the developer stated (contrary to what he had said in the Planning Commission
hearing) that he would pursue development of the property as it was currently
zoned (i.e. R-100 lots instead of cluster home lots).
By the beginning of December, after the vote of the Planning Commission to
recommend full cycle deferral and after the website coverage that presented
the research done for the Planning Commission and for the Board of Commissioners,
BCFA had raised 6 times the amount of money it started with.
On December 10, BCFA learned that the developer was moving forward with
plans to submit a development proposal to the county for R-100 lots. At this
point, the board decided to pursue a twofold strategy – reconnecting with the
donor base of over 100 people who had contributed money to the organization,
and firming up nascent relationships with large funding organizations that might
be able to support purchase of the land for conservation. For the donor base,
BCFA planned a focus group meeting at the local recreation center in January and
a campaign to send handwritten thank-you notes from board members. For the
large funding organizations, BCFA worked on preparing a document outlining a
“Critical Path” to finding the “highest and best use” of the land.
One week later, the focus group event is posted on website and visible on the
Events Calendar widget, and personal invitations are placed in all donors’ mailboxes.
At the same time, the County Commissioner begins to show signs of cooperation
This Narrated PowerPoint (https://youtu.be/t6IyqKzWAsY)was produced to
inform Parks Bond Citizen Advisory Council members about the forest’s location
and suitability as a public park serving a diverse community. The council met
January 14. It was also sent to BCFA board for possible use in conversations
with “Top 3” funders. This was posted on the website January 30. This post
is very important because the video shows how a study funded by the county
in 2006 supports BCFA’s mission of creating a public park in this location.
It also discusses the results of the Focus Group study that
showed awareness of public health benefits of parks and greenspace.
Clicking this photo will open the post on the website in Internet Explorer
On February 11, the Planning Commission voted to deny the sketch plat submitted
by the developer. This kind of result is very rare. The main reason cited was the
inability of the current stormwater infrastructure to handle the increased stormwater
generated by development, thus producing a public safety hazard. This post is notable
for the juxtaposition of narration with videos so that anyone reading the post can
follow what happens and understand the main points without having been at the
meeting. It gives people the ability to review what happened if they did not
understand something. By this time, people knew to go to the website to get
up-to-date coverage. The post was created within 24 hours of having posted a
one-line notification of the results right after the hearing.
Two weeks later, I used Twitter to post the surprising vote by the DeKalb County
Commission to allocate $9.87 million to purchase the forest. The next day I posted
a link to the DeKalb County TV website showing the video of the meeting.
This time the audio worked.
The final result of BCFA’s efforts – approximately $10 million was allocated to purchase
the forest in its entirety for public greenspace. Now it is a beautiful park that everyone